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Marco Rubio weighs in on Haley VA rat infestation

This dead rat that is one of three that fell through the ceiling of the kitchen last week at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. The hospital, internal emails indicate, has a severe rat and roach problem. [Times files]
Published Jun. 24, 2015

TAMPA — With dead rats falling from the kitchen ceiling at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Sen. Marco Rubio Monday urged the hospital's interim director to resolve pest control issues.

Rubio said he was "alarmed" by a recent Tampa Bay Times report that revealed how three dead rats fell through the ceiling of the hospital's kitchen last week during work to install new fire sprinklers. Internal hospital emails from the facility's infection chief also said the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital has a cockroach infestation.

"Improved conditions at" Haley "are critical for veterans in the Tampa Bay area," Rubio wrote in a letter to Haley interim director Sallie Houser-Hanfelder.

"I respectfully ask you to direct your full attention to ensuring that the facility's pest issues are resolved and that you do everything in your capacity ... to improve the conditions for all veterans who come to your facility."

The Miami Republican and presidential candidate pointedly reminded Houser-Hanfelder that last year, he introduced legislation to give the VA greater authority to fire or demote managers responsible for poor care. President Barack Obama subsequently signed that legislation into law.

"Stories such as this remind us of how much work remains ahead for the VA in order to adequately meet its obligation to our veterans," the letter said.

"We appreciate and share the senator's interest in the health and welfare of our nation's heroes," Haley spokeswoman Karen Collins said in a statement emailed to the Times. "We will work with Senator Rubio's office and other elected officials to answer any questions or address any concerns they may have about this issue."

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson also contacted VA officials about the infestation, his office confirmed.

The company hired to eliminate the rat and cockroach infestation at Haley said it was told by the hospital Monday to step up its pest control efforts. James Saiko, senior business development executive with Visions Inc. of Brooklyn Park, Minn., said Visions is about two weeks into its efforts to eradicate the infestations.

"We were requested to increase our program services during these initial nine weeks to be additionally aggressive to gain control of the current pest issues," Saiko said in an email to the Times.

Haley officials have declined requests by the Times to allow interviews with hospital officials overseeing pest control.

Visions' website describes the company as the "largest, certified Native American-owned combination advertising agency and printing company in the United States." Saiko said the firm is partnering on the $36,500 contract with Ecolab, a firm headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., but with offices in Tampa.

"The pest problem is being addressed," Saiko said, "and we feel that we have gained control over the situation moving forward."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

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